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The penalty box: For Barnaby, good friends, good conversation

by Evan Weiner

In 834 games, Matthew Barnaby racked up 2,562 penalty minutes.
Confession time. I worked with John Madden, the long-time NFL coach – not the New Jersey Devils forward – for 15 years on two radio shows, so after 15 years, you think in slightly stranger-than-normal terms when it comes to the football gridiron, the basketball court, the baseball diamond, the squared circle and the ice rink. It just goes with the territory when working on John’s show.

For instance, after the Dallas Stars opened for business in 1993, John went to a Stars game while he was in Dallas doing a Cowboys game. I asked him how he liked it, knowing John was going to find something at the game that no one else saw.

John didn't disappoint. He found the obscure angle that people never give much thought to – the action in the penalty box.

John was watching the off-ice officials in both penalty boxes opening and shutting the doors, talking to players serving penalties, dispensing pucks to the officials. That's John Madden, always aware of everything going on.

But Madden's view got me to thinking. What really does happen in the penalty box? So I turned to an expert, Matthew Barnaby, to find out.

Barnaby started his NHL career in 1992 and retired in 2007, playing for the Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers, Colorado Avalanche, Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars. In 834 games, he racked up 2,562 penalty minutes. Barnaby also could score, netting more than 20 goals in a season once and finishing with 113 goals and 300 points.

But Barnaby really knew his way around NHL penalty boxes.

"We got everything in there in the penalty box," Barnaby said. "Sometimes you are in there for a long time, doing what I did in all those years. You go from two, five and 10 and that could be spending 17 minutes in the box some nights. You got to make friends over there, it gets very lonely. We (the off-ice official and the player) talk about everything from politics to other sports that are going on to exactly how the game is going. So we made some friends over there."

Barnaby had a good time in all 30 rinks, but some penalty boxes were better than others.

"The one in Philadelphia was good because I spent so much time in there,” Barnaby said. “And the one in Anaheim, I think that guy wrote a book on all the different quotes he had heard from being in there. There are definitely ones that are a little more exciting than others and definitely ones you visited more than others.

"You go around the country and see good guys,” Barnaby said. “The ones in Anaheim always made you laugh and they always were very happy to be in there and really didn't take it as a job. It was a privilege to be in there. Those are guys I always will remember."

Barnaby played a lot of games at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, and that may have been his favorite penalty box.

"It was a tough building," he said. "The Flyers had such tough teams and when we played them, you were in there a lot. Plus, you see them so many times a year, you almost get to be friends with them (the off-ice officials), that was definitely a good one.

"The Garden (in New York ) was a great place to play, one of the historic places in all of sports, and I got to know both sides there, which was great. When I was on their team, it was the best place to play and I think the fans and the guys in the box, you got close to them, too.

"Guys who were more skilled got to know the goal judges a little more than I did,” Barnaby laughed. “I got to know the penalty box guys, which was pretty cool."

Barnaby also was pretty close to the public address announcer, joking, "I was trying to get them to put my name up on the goals a little more often than it happened."

Barnaby had a job as an agitator, pest and fighter. Sometimes he had to fight best friends like Rob Ray in 1999 after the Sabres sent Barnaby to Pittsburgh.

Barnaby played most of his career in the Eastern Conference, spending a piece of one season with Colorado, a whole season with Chicago and about a half-season with Dallas, so he was more familiar with Eastern boxes, but for some reason, he spent a lot of time in the box in Anaheim.

"Anaheim was in the West, but it seems like we always had a lot of big fights when we played in Anaheim no matter where we were," he said. "And in Detroit, they always had Joey Kocur and no one wanted to fight him, anyways."

Barnaby had a job as an agitator, pest and fighter. That was his occupation and that meant sometimes he had to fight best friends like Rob Ray in 1999 after the Sabres sent Barnaby to Pittsburgh.

"He's a good friend; we fought even as best friends,” he said. “When you are playing on opposite teams, your allegiance is to your team and that’s exactly what it was for both of us. He is still my best friend. I see him every single day. I own two businesses with him."

Barnaby broke in at a rink that Madden probably would have placed on his famous “All-Madden team”, the Aud in Buffalo. The Aud, which had no air conditioning, was the site of one of the most unusual Stanley Cup Playoff games in 1975 when high temperatures outside caused the ice to melt and the rink to get fogged in. Then, Sabres forward Jim Lorentz killed a bat. The Aud was the last NHL rink that had a smaller-than-regulation size (200 feet by 85 feet) ice surface.

“Just the way the rink was built, it had a lot of character,” Barnaby said. “It was a great place to play. It was a very exciting place and the first rink I got to play in as a pro.”

As for Madden, he didn’t talk much about the players he saw that night at Reunion Arena in Dallas, but if there was a player that fit the mold of an All-Madden player, Matthew Barnaby would have gotten a long look. Barnaby was the kind of player John would like, a guy who likes to get dirt all over his uniform and didn’t mind a bloody nose. Barnaby was a competitor who gave everything he had on the ice. A character player.

“A character is a player who hopefully gives 110 percent every night,” Barnaby said. “It is kind of the way that got me there and what made me stay around for 14 years. I was very fortunate to learn at an early age to work hard and give it all you’ve got. There are a lot of superstars that give their thing, but a good team needs character players.”


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